- December 2002
By Brett Van Putt
with guitarist James Byrd
Guitarist James Byrd has a long career thus far and he is just now
creating the best music of his career. Byrd originally began as
a guitarist in Fifth Angel, but after recording their debut album
he split and went on to record instrumental and vocal albums under
a variety of names (Atlantis Rising, James Byrd, now Byrd). His
latest is called Anthem, it's out now on Lion Music. Here is James
with a candid and detailed interview.
do you feel about Anthem?
That's a very broad question. Relieved, how's that. Whenever I finish
and deliver an album, there is a great relief of the stress it created
while making it. First I feel a bit sad like one of my children
has left home, then I spend a lot of time second guessing my craftsmanship
and worrying that I did as good a job as I could, then I get beyond
it and wonder what the hell I'll do next. Somewhere between deciding
that the album was finished, and wondering what to do next, I feel
a sense of relief. Anthem was a really hard record to make, and
it is a very sincere album. It is intentionally a bit darker and
progressive than Flying Beyond the 9 was because after 9/11, I was
not in the mood to write about fantasy, but to address realities,
both external, and personal. In a sense, it's a calculated album;
it's the first album I've done using the same line up, and intentionally
utilized the same musical parameters on as a previous album. Over
the years, I have made each and every album from a totally different
approach than the previous album. I think hurt me in a way because
people seem to need a degree of predictability from artists. I'm
not saying it's the same album as the previous album, clearly it's
entirely different in mood and writing. But I finally felt I found
a voice in terms of the big picture of my music, and it was a voice
which was very big, and without many limitations; that of using
extensive symphonic production values. I don't make albums to make
critics happy, I make them to express myself, and to hopefully connect
with fans. If critics love an album I've done, so much the better.
But no matter what one does, some people are not going to get it.
With Anthem, I've decided to grow instead of change, because I've
found a form which is very freeing from an artistic perspective.
One critic who raved about my last album was disappointed that Anthem
sounded similar. What are you going to do? It sounds similar because
I've chosen to continue to develop as opposed to a change in direction.
I like the album a lot and it's as though I've only just begun to
utilize the medium I've chosen with orchestration.
are you currently up to? Will you be recording again soon?
Holy cow, I just finished this one this summer. It takes me a year
of thought and arranging to put together an album, so no, I wouldn't
expect another one for many months. I do so much of the tracking
on these albums myself, and when one is responsible for lyrics,
composition, orchestration, arrangement, recording engineering,
and production, mixing, and booklet and cover art, it's a bit of
have released both instrumental and vocal discs, do you have a preference
or will you continue to release both in the future?
I love to compose absolute music, but you know, there's just unfortunately
not enough of a demand for a purely instrumental guitar album to
sustain the actual expense of making the albums. I do not feel constrained
anyway. It's not like someone's telling me what to play or when
to play it.
do you decide whether to release an album as Atlantis Rising or
I decided just use the moniker Byrd for several reasons. First,
I have embarked upon a musical direction which has a particularly
identifiable type of content which is a bit different from my past
works. Secondly, I wanted to begin the new millenium with something
simple and reflective of a new beginning musically. Thirdly, being
named James Byrd got pretty complex after James Byrd got dragged
to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas. I had just had my first
website built shortly before this happened and it really messed
everyone up. I had people related to the other James Byrd signing
my guestbook, and anyone trying to find my albums on the internet
got thousands of search results about that horrible crime in news
stories. I didn't want to change my name, but I did want to distance
myself from something that negative and potentially confusing if
there was a simple way to do it. Things have finally settled down
in that, and it's not a problem like it was, but in a nutshell,
it just made sense on every level. Besides, my friends have all
called me just Byrd all these years anyway.
back on the Shrapnel years, was Mike Varney a help to you?
I could say no and I could say yes. The bottom line I suppose could
only be found through motive. When considering those, I think he
helped himself, and would like to consider himself a benefactor
to me. Yes, I would not have ever gained access to this business
were it not for him. Not in that apart from lining his own pockets
as cheaply as possible with regard to my interests, he could have
done so much more and could have ended up with a degree of good-will
from me which I'd be lying if I said I had. I consider him utterly
nefarious and one of the mid-level industry's worst abusers of artist's
rights. He's still able to make money, but that's because there's
a never ending stream of passionate musicians who are there for
the taking. Some day he'll answer to a higher one, but as for me,
I'm glad he's no longer involved in my recordings, and that should
Malmsteen has spoken highly of you in the past, is it a case of
mutual admiration or are you friends?
Yngwie and I haven't talked in a very long time. We used to hang
out until the wee hours of the morning by telephone before he had
his son. Our friendship began with mutual admiration but became
quite close for a long time. Sadly, I have had to conclude that
he's angry with me as of the last two years. He' s a very outspoken
person as everyone knows-, and in our friendship, he never hesitated
to tell me what he thought about my own work, be it good or bad.
When he finished War to End All Wars he asked me what I thought
of the album. I didn't lie to him, it's just not my style, no matter
how important someone is. I told him look mate, you're a brilliant
guitarist, a brilliant musician, and the albums you've sent me since
we met have always been very good andthe playing amazing. But this
album just isn't right. The production is not good. I hate to have
to say it because I know you, and I know you just put a lot of work
into it, but as good as the actual performances are and they're
great actually-, you seriously messed up in getting rid of Chris
Tsangeritus. Well, you could have heard a fucking pin drop on he
other end of the phone. I felt awful to have been put on the spot,
but you know, he never felt constrained by friendship not to tell
me he didn't like the production on my Crimes of Virtuosity album.
He told me when I'd finished that that the production was truly
horrible. And you know, although it wasn't horrible, after hearing
him go on about it, I remixed the fucking thing because the points
he'd made were in essence, correct. So for me, the situation of
us not speaking now is sad because from my end, I never let his
criticism of one of my albums embitter me to the point of not wanting
to speak to him, but he may have when I was honest with him. I don't
know if he'll ever read this interview, but if he does, I just want
him to know that any time he wants to just give me a call and have
a chat, I'm not angry about anything, and I hope now, that he's
forgiven me for telling him what I thought, and still think, was
the truth about that album. Hey, he stopped defending it after pretty
much everyone else in the press said exactly the same thing. So
there you have it, I feel bad that we've stopped talking. If he
wants to change that, he should have his lovely wife email me his
new phone number because I don't even have one for him any more.
Hopefully he can get back up with his new album Attack, because
as far as I'm concerned, it' a very big world and this kind of music
has a limited audience. His doing well is generally good for everyone
who plays serious rock, so I only wish him the best.
yourself as a guitarist at this point in your career.
Not to have the focus of a guitarist. How much faster can one learn
to play? How much more technical can one get with the guitar and
have it mean anything? Who knows, but for me, my focus is on placing
the technique I have in the service of the music, not the other
way around. My playing in every regard now, is shaped by necessity
within the contexts I chose. Yes, I'm actually still very concerned
about technique on the guitar, but it's not so that I can play faster
or necessarily more difficult passages, but so that what I play,
is played exceedingly well. It's actually been that way for a long
time with me. Technique as such means so much more than speed or
stint with Fifth Angel sounded like a turbulent time, why did your
relationship with the band end?
There's a short answer and a long answer to this. While only the
long answer really explains the gravity of the corruption in the
situation that developed, I'm so damned tired of talking about it
in every interview, that I hope you'll accept my apologies for the
short answer here; money, agreements about money, and a desire for
more of it than the agreements would have allowed on the second
album, were the reason. Two members chose not to honor the investment
I'd made, and not to honor the principles of total equality in the
original partnership. Once success and a near million in potential
advances from Epic certainly looked like the big-time to kids- had
been seized so they thought-, basic greed and pettiness totally
destroyed the band. There's a lot more to it, but really, it's about
as much fun as talking about a bitter divorce over a decade later.
you ever a part of the recent reformation rumors?
This was such bullshit. There was never any discussion I know of
by any band members to do a reunion, this was a total crock made
up rather intentionally by someone on the internet. Were it to have
been true, I have no interest anyway. Too many people out there
really need to get a fucking life as far as I'm concerned. I have
no problem with any one holding the album I made in high regard,
don't get me wrong. It was truly an album which has stood the test
of time, and a rather impressive piece of art in it's day. I just
have no interest in re-living, or attempting to re-live the past.
Sure, there's a whole slew of reunions going on, but I'd be lying
if I didn't say here, to me most of them are pathetic, transparent,
and hollow looking attempts either avert mid-life crises, or rake
in the last few album sales. My entire philosophy as a musician
is to neither contrive to capitalize on trends, nor to reside in
the creations of the past, but to move ahead without denying either
the past or the future, and to build rather than abandon.
your writing style.
I'm not sure I really have fixed style if we're talking about the
span of my works. Look at the vast differences in approach I've
taken since 1983. My music is neither planned nor spontaneous really.
It just comes into my mind, fully formed, fully produced. I then
have to try to re-create something that's come to me this way. This
is how it is for me.
do you feel about your career thus far?
I have no regrets or doubts as to what I've actually accomplished
over the years. I do wish I'd been paid better, and more honestly
which would have been better- but I don't really think money is
something one is going to worry too much about during their last
breath. I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing with my
gifts, and although I could certainly pick apart some details, I
feel pretty damned good that I've made eight albums over nearly
twenty years against such odds of anyone ever really doing what
they want to as a musician. I've taken some breaks between albums,
sometimes because I wanted to, sometimes because that's how long
it took to work out a deal, and maybe I wish that I'd been able
to do more albums. All in all, I've had everything but a lot of
money, and there are so many people with money who I'd never trade
places with, I just count my blessings really.